Fun story: a long time ago, I decided to start a series called Writing Lifehacks. I wrote one post in May about antiheros, but then my summer got busy and I never picked it back up. Good news, though–I’m back! And today we’re going to talk about something super fun: writing effective fight scenes.
For a long time, fight scenes were my nemesis. They were hard. They were ugly. I didn’t write that many, but when I did, they basically looked like this:
But lately, I’ve realized that shoddy fight scenes are something that can 100% peg you as an amateur lazy writer who doesn’t want to do the research. I’ve been reading up on sword techniques, and where to hit in a fistfight, and types of knives. I’ve been studying fight scenes written by well-established authors whom I admire. I’ve even been applying everything I know from other parts of my life (writing for a CrossFit company, reading about exercise science, working out every day) to the creative writing part of my life (writing novels) because it’s just fascinating to me. AND YES I KNOW I’M A NERD, THANK YOU. But because of all of this, I like to think that my fight scenes have considerably improved (not that I was setting the bar very high to begin with). Anyway, today I bring you #2 in my Writing Lifehacks series: fight scenes. Let’s get started.
Lifehack #1: Recovery time from injuries should be realistic.
This drives me nuts. UNLESS the characters in your story have magical powers that allow them to heal quickly, then you need to remember that they’re going to be in pain and stiff and sore for at least some period of time afterwards (depending on the degree of the injury) and adjust the following scenes accordingly. For instance, I mention in passing that a secondary character in Angelica (my WIP–a dystopian novella) hurts his finger. It’s not a huge part of the plot or anything–I just need to show that my little band of kids is outnumbered by the rebel army. Since I mention that his finger is injured, I make sure to say that he has trouble putting up the tent that night–and, a few days later, he’s still flexing it and grimacing in between some key bits of dialogue.
Lifehack #2: Training, both physical and psychological, takes time (for you and your character).
This drives me nuts too: if you have a character who’s new to your world/new to fighting, they WILL NOT be perfect with just a few days of training. Are there weapons involved? To use those weapons correctly and effectively, years of training would probably be required. Are fists involved? Same thing–lots of training is necessary. There’s a right way and a wrong way to hit people. (not that I would know from personal experience ha) Another thing to consider is the psychological effect that fighting has on your character–typically, people don’t enjoy hurting other people, even if they’re mad at them. This is especially true for people who are new to combat. And if your character faints at the sight of their own blood, what will they do when they see someone else’s? In addition to considering how much knowledge your character realistically has, think about how much you have. I’ve found through my fitness writing ventures that hands-on experience is important in order to be able to write about physical movements effectively,
so just go punch all the people who annoy you. Take an archery class or something. Which brings up another sub-point: if you’re writing about weapons, research them. Research them lots. Not only do you need to know how they work, but you need to be able to describe them–no need for long detailed paragraphs about your antagonist’s dagger (unless the fact that it’s bright red is super important to the plot or something), but just get familiar enough with the weapons that you can casually throw in an accurate line or two about their appearance and then just keep right on going.
Lifehack #3: Cut the dialogue.
Unless you’re Voldemort (see below), people don’t have time to hold a conversation in the middle of a battle. Physically, they’re working hard; they’re probably short of breath, and maybe in pain. All of your energy is focused on staying alive. If your characters just really need to talk right then, you can have them gasp out a few words as they run by each other wielding their swords (but don’t run with swords bc that’s not safe k thanks). As a general rule, though, keep it focused on the fight.
Lifehack #4: Keep your prose short and sweet.
In the same vein, your writing should consist of short and choppy sentences, mimicking the fast-paced intensity of the fight. There’s no time for long paragraphs of dialogue or emotions or philosophizing–just focus on simple but powerful language, strong and interesting verbs, and using all five senses. This will make the reader feel as if they’re really there.
Lifehack #5: Adrenaline works against you.
A lot of writers seem to think that adrenaline helps you during a fight, but adrenaline actually has more negative effects than it does positive ones. Adrenaline is secreted into the bloodstream when people are exposed to something that could be dangerous; it increases your heart rate and blood pressure, preparing you to do one of two things–run away or fight. Other symptoms include shakiness, weakness, a decrease in coordination, and not thinking clearly. Besides those conditions, an adrenaline surge is unfamiliar; it reminds people of the way fear feels, and can make them freeze. So don’t assume that adrenaline will always help your character fight harder and better–it might do just the opposite. Also, keep in mind that hand-to-hand fights don’t last long unless everyone involved is in very good shape and has lots of endurance.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing fight scenes for you? Do you have any lifehacks you’d add to my list? Let’s chat!